“Idol” is a live-action puppet short film about the power of objects and images, and the pitfalls of confusing them with the reality they represent. It is based on a poem by the Roman author Publius Ovidius Naso (a.k.a. Ovid), about Pygmalion, a man disgusted with the women around him, who creates an artificial female companion for himself from pieces of ivory only to fall desperately in love with it. Though the poem is 2000 years old, it is more relevant than ever. As a bachelor by choice who prefers a fake woman over a real one, Pygmalion could easily pass for a hikikomori, a modern-day person suffering from acute social withdrawal. In fact, he doesn’t need a psychopathological diagnosis to be recognizable: he could be anyone spending a little too much time on their phone or computer. That’s why “Idol” ditches the mythical hero’s toga and sandals and turns him into an everyday Everyman in the vaguely but recognizably modern urban environment of a nameless seaside town. No effort is made to hide the fact that all of this is fake, a miniature movie set made from recycled boxes, with cardboard actors evidently animated by an off-screen puppeteer. Both in its form and content, the film toys with the tension between what is real and what is fake, questioning not only its own reality status but that of the world as we know it and relate to it.
Traditionally, Ovid’s poem is considered a tribute to the power of art, with Pygmalion as the quintessential artist, someone so accomplished that his work only needs “a touch of Venus” to come to life. Telling his story with puppets raises existential questions, for here the man making a doll is a puppet himself, not much different from the thing he has created. When the love goddess brings his idol to life, the miracle takes on a new dimension in a film where the actors themselves are fake people who only appear to be alive.
Adapting an ancient tale to modern sensibilities has its challenges, particularly one that has such strong undertones of misogyny and patriarchal privilege as this one. In the original, after bringing Pygmalion’s effigy to life for him, Venus “is present at the wedding she herself has orchestrated,” and barely nine months later a baby is born. All of this happens without the consent of the newly created woman, who is never even given a name. The implications are deeply disturbing. Why would a love goddess reward a misogynist by turning his love doll into his wife? And why would she force this “wife” into a sexual relationship, marriage and motherhood the moment she opens her eyes?
While creating the screenplay, I felt that removing the tale’s objectionable elements wasn’t an option because that would also remove its power. Disturbing and weird though it may be, Pygmalion has survived in Western civilization and beyond for twenty centuries, with echoes in living culture from G. B. Shaw’s play of the same name, to the musical and film “My Fair Lady” which it inspired, to more recent AI-movies such as Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” and Spike Jonze’s “Her.” For my own film, I wanted to stay close to Ovid’s potent text but also needed to come up with a meaningful response to its troublesome issues. Ironically, it is thanks to a close reading of the poem as well as research into the ancient love goddess worship on Pygmalion’s island of Cyprus that I came up with a solution. Without contradicting Ovid’s version, “Idol” adds a twist that provides a more acceptable yet thought-provoking alternative to the story’s undeserved, highly implausible happily-ever-after.
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